Traces of Spanish colonialism are easy to find scattered across the Caribbean and Latin America. Some of the greatest cities of the New World were built to project the power of Spain: Panama Viejo, Cartagena, Lima, Buenos Aires and, perhaps most important of all, Havana Vieja. The wealth of these cities was coveted by many and jealously guarded by Spain.
The massive complex of fortifications the Spanish built to protect Havana, first from pirates and later from competing European nations, is breathtaking in its scope and size. These are magnificent places, full of the history of a fascinating period. They’re also an indication of the value placed on Havana, where Spanish treasure ships congregated before risking the Atlantic crossing.
In Havana Vieja, sitting on one corner of the Plaza de Armas, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza feels like it’s part of the city. In reality, construction began in 1558, making it one of the oldest fortifications in the Americas. Surrounded by a moat it has impressive ‘spiked’ corners.
The Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta sits a short distance away on the western side of the harbour entrance, and was part of the defensive walls of the old city. Today it plays host to a few cannons, and has views of fishermen trying to catch their supper in the aquamarine waters it guards.
Opposite, on the eastern side of the harbour entrance, is the 18th Century Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, one of the largest fortifications in the Americas (second only to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena). Nearby is the picturesque Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, complete with lighthouse.
Spain believed Castillo Morro to be impregnable, which proved too tempting for the British during the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 63) – a European war fought globally thanks to the expansion of European empires. The conflict raged across Europe, Canada, the United States, West Africa, India, the Philippines and the Caribbean.
The Spanish allied themselves with France against Britain and Prussia, three of which had a powerful interest in attacking each others’ colonies. Spain’s Empire was plundered by the British in the Caribbean, while the French and British fought for control of North America, West African and India.
In 1762 a British fleet of fifty ships and twenty thousand men sailed into view off Havana. After a failed seaborne attack, the British took to land and marched on the rear of Castillo Morro. Setting up camp on high ground above the castle they spent the next forty-four days lobbing bombs at the Spanish. When the castle fell the British turned their attention to Havana.
For nine months the British controlled Havana and Cuba. But the British, fresh from victory over France in Canada, preferred to protect their North American colonies than to keep Cuba. The end of the Seven Years’ War saw Britain swap Cuba for Florida. A Cleopatra’s Nose Theory if ever there was one.
Dominating the skyline to the east, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña was constructed after the harsh lessons of the Seven Years’ War. It’s full of magnificent old Spanish cannons, inscribed with royal insignia and the place and date of their forging. It has spectacular views over Havana. 700 metres long and 10 hectares in size, it was meant to deter all-comers. No one was foolhardy enough to attack it.
After the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara set up his headquarters in the fort and here he summarily tried and executed opponents of the Revolution. When people fondly remember the romantic revolutionary, whose iconic image adorns millions of t-shirts, the extrajudicial killings for which he was responsible are mostly forgotten. Such is history.
Where we stayed in Havana:
Joel y Yadilis
Industria 120 altos e/ Trocadero y Colon.
Tel. (537) 863 0565 / Movil 05 2835769